Saving the holiday season
Those expecting “Saving Mr. Banks” to be a typically Disney whimsy-filled look at how the studio, led by its charismatic boss Walt, was able to convince prickly author P.L Travers to let “Mary Poppins” be adapted to for big screen are in for a surprise. Fortunately, the surprise is one of the film years’ best – a wholly engrossing, heartbreaking drama that details the backstory of how a classic musical was made while illuminating the painful events that shaped the author’s work.
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) tried unsuccessfully for nearly 20 years to make his daughter’s wish come true and adapt Australian-born Brit P.L Travers’ (Emma Thompson) popular book “Mary Poppins” into a musical. But in 1961, Travers, by then running low on royalties from her book, decided to travel to California to meet with Disney face to face. Disney was riding high on the success of his movies and the newly-opened theme park, as well as a myriad of television shows, and Travers showed up ostensibly to work with Disney’s creative team and then decide whether to relent.
But “Saving Mr. Banks,” as its title alludes, has another story to tell. In a series of flashbacks, Travers’ hardscrabble childhood in Australia is depicted, along with her loving relationship with a charismatic, storytelling father (Colin Farrell), a bank manager fighting a losing battle with the bottle. Travers’ book, it turns out, is a painful catharsis; a reflective recollection of her futile attempt to save her father from himself.
Disney, as depicted by Hanks, is a perfect concoction of Walt’s sturdy, persuasively engaging manner who seems befuddled by Travers’ disarmingly flinty stubbornness. According to her wishes, many of the meetings with the Disney creative team, which included the Sherman brothers songwriters (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman) were recorded, and the film’s scenes showing Travers’s determination to resist the Disney-fication of her book are enthralling and enlightening. “No, No, No!” the strong willed author shouts – especially upon hearing animated penguins were in the offing, flummoxing Disney and his staff. A terrific supporting cast is rounded out by Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, and Kathy Baker.
The magic of “Saving Mr. Banks” is how it artfully balances two important stories without resorting to maudlin sentiment or superficial formula. Some license was taken with Travers’ reaction to the film (powerfully emoted in a tear-jerking scene at the film’s Hollywood premiere), and though she never worked directly for Disney again, she did allow for a stage musical (albeit with substantive changes) to be adapted. “Saving Mr. Banks” is a triumph on so many levels it is hard to find much fault with it.
Practically worthy of deification, Emma Thompson’s nuanced, unfailingly authentic performance here is nothing short of brilliance.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images.